Are we living in a conscious universe?

Are you conscious right now?

That’s a pretty easy question to answer. You might say that’s the only thing in life you can ever be totally sure of. You are experiencing existence from moment to moment, and everything else beyond that is… well, just conjecture.

Is a dog conscious? What about a spider? Or a tree? Where do we draw the line of conscious experience, and how can we ever understand something so abstract?

We are always getting closer to understanding how our brains work – and we can link certain physical processes in the brain with behaviours and thoughts – but that still doesn’t answer the hard question: why conscious experience exists. As a philosopher might put it, why is there “something-that-it-is-like-to-be” me? Why does experience seemingly arise from physical systems?

making-up-the-mind

One argument, supported by logical reasoning, is that conscious experience can’t be explained reductively; that is, we can’t explain how I experience colours by reducing the problem down to its most basic parts. Reductive explanation could show me how my brain processes colours, and how it produces all sorts of colour-related behaviours (i.e. stopping at a red light), but it could never explain my own perception of the colour red. Why is my perception of the colour red like this, and not like feeling rain on my skin, or hearing a musical note?

Continue reading

LSD and associative thinking

Earlier this year, researchers at Imperial showed us the first ever detailed images of the brain on LSD. The images showed that LSD massively increased connectivity in the brain, freeing it from its usual boundaries. Now researchers are starting to piece together how LSD breaks down these boundaries of normal consciousness, leading us to an understanding of the workings of the mind.

carhart-harris-2016-mri

MRI scans from Carhart-Harris et al (2016) show how LSD increases brain connectivity

In a recent study from the same UCL group, funded by the psychedelic research charity the Beckley Foundation, researchers looked into how LSD affects our ability to recognise simple objects. The researchers recruited ten participants for their study, almost all of whom were experienced with psychedelic drugs. The subjects attended two experimental sessions: one where they were injected with LSD (40-80μg), and one where they were injected with a placebo. During both placebo and LSD sessions, participants took an object recognition test. They were shown images of simple objects like pieces of clothing or vehicles. As soon as an image appeared, the participants had to name the object as quickly and accurately as they could.

Continue reading

Turning up the creativity dial

Swirling colours, delirious patterns, groovy rhythms and otherworldly vistas. These are some of the first things that come to mind when we think about psychedelics. The unique fashion and culture of the 1960s was influenced by the popularity of psychedelic drugs like no other time in our history; the colours, patterns and hair-dos of that time stand out like a carnival in our recent timeline.

paisley

Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles… the list of bands influenced by psychedelics could go on and on. Aldous Huxley’s works, still hugely influential to this day, are clearly inspired by his experiences with mescaline and LSD. Steve Jobs took LSD in college, and called it “one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life”. The inventor of PCR, a breakthrough biomolecular technique that has revolutionised medical research, said that LSD gave him the intuition that allowed him to make the ground-breaking discovery. Artists and architects, authors and entrepreneurs have been finding inspiration in LSD, mescaline, psilocybin and DMT for decades.

Continue reading

The Consciousness Conduit

The aptly-named ‘hard problem’ of consciousness: why do we experience? Why do we perceive colours and sounds? Why do we feel emotions?

On the surface, we can track the mechanical basis of all these sensations. We can look at a network of firing neurons and say, “there, that’s the perception of the colour red”. But we can’t explain how that links to our actual experience of the colour red. We currently have no neurobiological or physical explanation for how subjective experience results from complex systems of neurons.

robot brain

It seems as if there is no reason why subjective perception would have evolved in us. We just don’t need it. To escape a predator, I just need my brain to recognize a rustle in the bushes and make my legs move. To stop at a red light, I just need my neurons doing their jobs of recognizing the colour red, and pushing on the brake pedal. Where does my subjective perception of these events actually matter? On the surface, I am no different from a robot.

Continue reading